As a dark-colored minivan drove away in the night, flames ripped through a four-unit apartment building on Wolcott Street early Wednesday morning, claiming three lives, police said.
Police are looking for that minivan as they investigate a deadly fire in Fair Haven, at the corner of Poplar and Wolcott Streets. At an afternoon press conference, Mayor John DeStefano said police have determined the blaze was started intentionally and are investigating it as a triple homicide.
The fire broke out around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday at 48-50 Wolcott St. It trapped three of the building’s 15 occupants on the third floor, killing them.
Clinton Avenue School second-grader Quayshawn Roberson, his mother, Wanda Roberson, and another relative perished in what authorities now say was arson. City officials declined to provide details about how they concluded the fire was arson. A person familiar with the investigation said accelerant was located on a back stairway.
Other tenants could have died too—if not for firefighters and neighbors like 18-year-old Jose Marrero and his friends, who caught several women who jumped and four babies who were handed down from the second floor porch.
Eleven people were rescued from the flames and taken to the hospital, where they were treated for smoke inhalation and were being housed by the Red Cross Wednesday evening.
At a 3:30 p.m. press conference at the scene of the fire, city officials offered details of the incident and issued a plea for public assistance.
DeStefano was the first to speak, offering “the city’s condolences to families who lost members.”
Two families lived in the building, he said. The two apartments on the first floor were vacant. The five members of the Ali family lived on the second and third floors at 50 Wolcott St. The 10-member Roberson family lived on the second and third floors at 48 Wolcott St.
The initial fire call came in at 1:30 a.m. DeStefano said. By 1:34 a.m., Engine 10 had arrived from the Lombard Street station. At 1:39 a.m., a second alarm was signaled. Within minutes, two ladders, five engines, and two squads were at the scene. Within 12 minutes, 50 firefighters were battling the blaze, which they knocked down in about 15 minutes, the mayor said.
The apartments had two exits available to them as required, said Fire Chief Michael Grant (pictured). Landings outside the second floor apartments led to exits in the front and rear of the building, he said. Unfortunately, the fire moved quickly to block those exits, he said. “They were trapped by the fire.”
Police Chief Frank Limon said 10 detectives have been assigned to investigate what they are calling a triple homicide.
“Our job is to find justice,” he said.
Lt. John Velleca, head of the major crimes unit, said the investigation is in its preliminary stages. He appealed to the public for help finding a dark-colored minivan that was seen leaving the scene of the fire. People with information can call (203) 946-6304.
Velleca declined to comment on the details of the case. He said the detectives have spoken with over a dozen people so far in their investigation. No one is in custody.
A search of previous calls for police assistance for the location found nothing out of the ordinary, Velleca said.
Building Passed Inspections
The building passed three inspections in the last eight months, the mayor said. In May 2010 it was inspected for rental licensing. In December 2010 and January 2011 it was inspected for Section 8 housing compliance. All three inspections found no violations, which means the house was properly equipped with smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, the mayor said.
The building’s owner, Lili Khorsandi, 62, owns three other properties in the city. Erik Johnson, head of New Haven government’s Livable City Initiative (LCI), said those properties have not been cited for any problems, except a bedbug complaint last year at 48 Wolcott St.
However, all four properties owe back taxes, the mayor said.
Khorsandi lives in Roslyn Heights, New York, according to an internet database. A number listed online for her was not in service. A tenant at a house Khorsandi owns nearby on Chatham Street said she’s a good landlord.
At another of her houses, 349 Peck St. (pictured), no tenants were around to be interviewed. That’s because the house is vacant, abandoned, and boarded-up. Aquamarine paint is peeling from the shingles. A next-door neighbor said it’s been abandoned for at least two years; she said she’s sent her husband to cut the lawn in the past when it gets overgrown.
”Shock And Grief”
As of 9:30 a.m. Thursday, the Wolcott Street fire was out. One fire truck remained. Police had the street blocked off. A fire investigative unit arrived, as did members of LCI, which is responsible for code enforcement.
If the fire department hadn’t been there, they would have died also, said Jim Kottage head of the firefighters union. He said Lt. Steven Durand and two others were among the first firefighters to arrive. They went up on ladders and rescued two people from the second floor, Kottage said.
Chris Hoffman, spokesman for New Haven’s public schools, said that a crisis response team was sent to the school. That team includes “social workers, grief counselors, and others who will help students and staff members cope with their shock and grief,” Hoffman said in a release.
The school canceled Connecticut Mastery Tests scheduled for today.
“I extend my deepest condolences to the student’s family and friends,” said Reggie Mayo, superintendent of schools. “This is terrible tragedy. We will do all we can to help students and staff deal with his loss.”
A neighbor, Geneva King (pictured), knew Quayshawn as “Shawnie.”
King said Shawnie often hung out at her house and played with her grandson. He also helped her bring groceries in after shopping. On Monday, he played touch football with her family. “He just was the sweetest thing,” she said.
King said Shawnie’s cousin rode the bus home with King’s son around 1 a.m. Wednesday after her son got off work at Popeye’s. About a half hour later the house erupted in flames.
A man named George Jones (at left in photo) arrived at the scene around 9:30 a.m.
“Oh no,” he said, bursting into tears. “My kids lived in that house.” He spoke briefly with police, then headed to the hospital.
Firefighters also spoke with a couple (pictured in top photo) who said they had family in the building. They declined to comment further.
The house suffered obvious major damage in the fire. Many homes on Poplar Street have been owned by a succession of absentee landlords and slumlords and real-estate flippers since at least the 1980s. It has been plagued by vacant houses and foreclosures.